And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish Jews

Polish Jewry before the war is the subject of a powerfulphoto exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Photo from “And I Still See Their Faces: Images of PolishJews”

Anyone who has ever gazed at a worn sepia-toned family photographwith a mixture of curiosity, sadness and wonder should pay a visit to”And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish Jews.” The exhibitionof photographs made its national debut at the Museum of Tolerance onWednesday, Nov. 12, following a European tour that included stops inWarsaw, Lódz and Frankfurt. Meticulously reproduced, thesephotos span the time period from the late 19th century to 1940,documenting the vivid and varied life of Polish Jewry before the riseof Nazism.

Inevitably, to linger over these pictures is to reflect on allthat was lost and never will be again. They are fixed moments in timefrom “the other side” of history. The faces depicted here — ofsomber schoolchildren and glamorous newlyweds, of jaunty soldiers andbearded old men — stare out from a world unaware that darkness wouldsoon descend for good.

Perhaps as significant as the project itself is the story of itsfruition, which some point to as compelling evidence of the emergenceof “a new Poland” vis-à-vis the Jews.

Several years ago, Golda Tencer — a Polish Jew born after the warand an actress in Warsaw’s Yiddish-language Jewish Theatre –established a group called the Shalom Foundation, drawing members toits board from Poland, Israel and the United States, with the dualaims of preserving the memory of the 3 million Polish Jews whoperished in the Holocaust, and promoting Jewish life in Poland today.

In 1994, Tencer and company launched an appeal, primarily inPoland, but also worldwide, for people to send in any photos they hadof Polish Jews taken prior to the Holocaust. According to Jane tenBrink, a curator at the Museum of Tolerance, “The foundation wasinundated. Seven thousand photos suddenly emerged from obscurity.Many of them were from non-Jews within Poland.” Personal memorabilia,such as poems, postcards, letters and diaries, also flooded in alongwith the pictures.

“Jews who were endangered often would leave photo albums withneighbors and friends, and ask them to keep it for them during thewar,” ten Brink said. “Many of these pictures were carefully hidden.Poles could face arrest for having these Jewish albums, so they werehidden in floorboards and all sorts of places…. People also sent invery touching stories — recollections of Jewish families, includingmemories of the day they were taken away.”

The man charged with distilling this avalanche of Jewish fragmentsinto an exhibition of 456 photographs was acclaimed photojournalistTomasz Tomaszchevski. Over a period of several years, he interviewedolder Jews still living in Poland, and, then, with his wife, producedthe exhibit. Tomaszchevski’s moving encounters with his Jewishsubjects also resulted in a book, “The Last Jews of Poland.”

The financial sponsors of the exhibition were Poland’s CulturalMinistry and state-owned Lot Polish Airlines. That’s news that maygladden — or at least surprise — a good number of AshkenaziAmerican Jews who equate Poland with a long and ignominious traditionof anti-Semitism. When then-Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamirmade the much-publicized comment that “Poles take in anti-Semitismwith their mothers’ milk,” it was a sentiment that, to a certaindegree, has reflected conventional Jewish wisdom for generations.

Curator ten Brink (whose own German-Jewish parents fled Europe in1940 for the Dominican Republic) hopes that this exhibition willchallenge Jewish visitors to rethink all that. Her research, shesaid, and her visit to Poland during the course of this project haveled her to believe the time is ripe for Polish-Jewish conciliation.

Despite a tradition of anti-Semitism, she said, Polish toleranceand goodwill toward Jews has been historically overlooked. What’smore, Polish collaboration with the Nazis has been overstated. AmongJews, her views have provoked “sharply mixed” reactions, ten Brinkacknowledged.

“I came across tremendous resistance to my conclusions, but thetime has come,” she said. “The time is right to end a longsilence…. This exhibition seems like the first step into a verytouchy area for both groups. It’s tricky because someone could makethe wrong statement, insult the other side, and that groupretrenches. It’s highly charged.”

Among non-Jews of Poland’s postwar generation, “there is a revivalof interest — often academic — in Jews and Jewish culture, which isanother reason for the Polish government’s support of theexhibition,” ten Brink said. Indeed, Americans may already befamiliar with that phenomenon, courtesy of Tomaszchevski. His recentphoto essay for The New York Times Magazine documented thefascination with all things Jewish among younger Poles. Some of themeven embrace yiddishkayt as a voguish personal statement ofrebellion.

“There was half a century of communism in Poland, and during thatperiod, Polish Jewry was almost forgotten,” said Pavel Potoroczyn,Poland’s assistant consul general in Los Angeles and a closecollaborator with ten Brink on the project’s conversion to English.”Now we are seeing a tremendous interest in it.”

Adapting and translating the show’s text and arranging for itstravel to the Museum of Tolerance was a time-consuming and costlyprocess that took nearly a year, Potoroczyn said. “All versions ofthis exhibition were approved by the Cultural Ministry, and that’s animportant point to make, since the English version alone cost$50,000.”

As for modern Jewish life in his native country, the assistantconsul paints an encouraging picture. He cites the example ofBronislaw Geremek, minister of foreign affairs for the republic andthe son of an Orthodox rabbi from Lódz. “The barrier that keptJews out of power, out of politics, and out of business has beenbroken,” Potoroczyn said. “It is a renaissance, and Polish Jews havebeen using that word, not me.”

Whether or not Poland and the Jews will be able to heal old woundswith the promise of a better future, what this state-sponsoredexhibition offers us now are these absorbing, hauntingly evocativephotographs. They are our window into the everyday life of aonce-thriving community. Every picture, as they say, tells a story,and some of the tales behind these photos are particularly unique andmoving. One was taken by a man who owned a coffin shop. During anexecution, he climbed into a coffin he had in the display window forsafety. Through a small hole in the casket, he shot two pictures withhis small Leica camera. Another, a tiny, battered photo of a motherin the shape of a heart, was carried around by a little girl wholater said that the picture twice helped her to survive Mengele’sdreaded “selections.”

“And I Still See Their Faces” conjures a world that isirretrievable and remote, yet inexplicably still close to home.

The exhibit is co-presented by the Consulate General of theRepublic of Poland. Simultaneously making its debut is “RECOLLECTION:The Lost Synagogues of Poland.” Both exhibitions run through Feb. 15,1998, at the Museum of Tolerance, 9760 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.For information, call (310) 553-8403.